WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wants the Jets to focus on fun, not the magnitude of Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The expansion Golden Knights are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final and could eliminate the Jets and reach the Stanley Cup Final with a victory.
”These are the best games, always are, when everything is on the line,” Maurice said Saturday. ”Everybody will be at their most excited. You have to find a way, and it shouldn’t be very difficult, to love every minute of it. … This has to be your finest hour. Before the puck drops, I’m not talking about the play, be able to get your mind that this is the most fun game of the year now.”
The Jets have accomplished more in the playoffs than the Atlanta Thrashers franchise did before relocating to Manitoba in 2011. They’ve also surpassed the achievements of the original NHL Jets franchise that moved to Arizona in 1996.
As the current Winnipeg team eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the first round in five games and then bounced the Predators in a Game 7 in Nashville, fans from across the country have cheered on the only Canadian team left in the championship run.
Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot and his teammates have seen the adoration, particularly in Winnipeg with their white-clad crowd inside Bell MTS Place and thousands more outside at ”whiteout” street parties around the rink.
Now, though, isn’t the time to let the hopes of hockey fans weigh them down, he said.
”I don’t think you can think about that, how many people we have watching us,” Chiarot said.
”It’s a little daunting when you think of a whole province, or even the whole country, watching us play. So you just focus on what you do and the guys in the room and that’s all we focus on.”
Winnipeg won the first game against the Golden Knights at home.
The Jets had an NHL-best home record of 32-7-2 in the regular season and finished with nine straight victories at home. They added four more in the playoffs, but have lost three of their last four games at home.
In the last two losses to Vegas, the Jets gave up the first goal. When they did tie it up in both matches, the Golden Knights responded with goals in under a minute to regain their lead.
”It’s going to be really important, not only just to score the first, but just to have a good start,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. ”We felt like we actually started OK last game, just kind of got in penalty trouble early. That can determine how it looks like you start.”
If the Jets can pull out a victory Sunday, Game 6 is Tuesday night in Las Vegas. A Game 7 would be Thursday night in Winnipeg.
Maurice wants his players to approach the do-or-die game like their Game 7 victory in Nashville.
”I want them to take their experience from Game 6 and 7 and create the environment they created there where they came out with an excitement and smile on their face,” he said. ”Going into Game 7, there’s as much pressure in that game as there was here, right? It’s the exact same game. This one is at home. We’ll need that crowd. They’ve been great for us.
”Both teams, all four teams now (left in the playoffs), there’s not quite as much in the tank as there was before. You’re looking to draw on that and go out with an excited smile.”